The Embalmer’s Fingerprints

Sometime in the winter of  1907 and 1908,  an American researcher found a curious assortment of objects lying in a small pit in the Valley of the Kings. Theodore Davis, like many Egyptologists of the day,  was looking for large, grand things, preferably royal tombs. So when he and his workers dug up several jars filled with linen bandages, worn kerchiefs,  broken pottery,  splintered animal bones, bits of dried mud, and collars made of faded dried flowers,  he immediately set them aside and resumed digging.

Davis thought he had found scraps from a poor man’s grave.  In fact,  he and his team had excavated all the leftovers from Tutankhamun’s  spectacular funeral in 1323 B.C. Continue reading

On the Feasibility of Cloning a Neandertal

Scientific American has just posted a very cool interactive feature online today that’s  entitled “Twelve Events that Will Change Everything.” One of these game-changing events,  suggests the magazine,  will be human cloning.

The section on human cloning is relatively short,  but it includes several points of interest.  As regular readers here know,  I take a strong interest in scientific research on Neandertals,  particularly on  developments that could lead to the cloning of this extinct hominin.   Continue reading

Fear and Loathing in the Caribbean

I think there are few more fascinating reads around than the early 16th century narratives of European adventurers in the Americas.    Most of these travelers had sized up their financial prospects at home and found them grimly wanting as younger sons of nobility or aspiring merchants.  So they signed up for long dangerous sea voyages in small sailing ships to lands few of their friends or family had ever heard of and fewer still could really imagine.

My overall impression is that these early travelers spent a good deal of their time in the Americas quaking in their boots.   Yes,  they had their swords and arquebuses and Spanish mastiffs,  but in the early decades of contact,  before smallpox and European diseases swept across the land and turned thriving villages into ghost towns,   these would-be colonists were hugely outnumbered.   In Jamaica alone,  for example,  the early Spanish sailors encountered some 60,000 Taino. Continue reading

What’s the Difference between a Neandertal and a Modern Human?

Bright and early yesterday morning, I was on the phone listening to a important piece of scientific history unfold.  At the other end of the line was a Science magazine press conference in which researchers announced the world’s first draft sequence  of the Neandertal genome.   The team’s paper will appear tomorrow in Science.

I hadn’t had even my first cup of coffee yet,  and my dog pawed at the office door,  impatient to be fed and walked.  But I was riveted by calm,  sonorous voice of Svante Pääbo,  a geneticist at the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and one of the team’s leading members,  as he gave an overview of the project.  “It’s extremely satisfying,” said Pääbo  “that we now have the overview of the Neandertal genome after four years of intense efforts.”   I can well imagine. Continue reading